The phrase Bats in the Belfry is a proverb commonly used to describe confusing and disorderly situations or behavior.
It originates from the notion of bats living in belfries of churches or other buildings. In the same way, people can sometimes act in an unpredictable manner in the face of disruption. People who act like a lot of bats being stirred up in their living environment can be described with this proverb.
Its meanings are akin to the phrase “A Rat’s Nest,” which has a similar connotation and in some cases might be interchangeable.
The phrase “Bats in the Belfry” originates from 19th and 20th century America, when bats inhabiting the upper part of a church, known as the belfry, was a frequent sighting.
This phrase was first recorded in print in the year 1900, in the paper The Newark Daily Advocate. Belfries were traditionally built to house church bells, but it was also common to find bats inhabiting the same space. The phrase, “Bats in the Belfry,” likely originated as a reference to a phenomenon where bats, disturbed by the bell’s tolls flew out erratically from the belfry.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, the proverbial expression “Bats in the Belfry” was very popular in literary circles, and was featured in many poems and novels at the time. It is thought to come from the fact that people viewed the behavior of mentally unwell people as one might a colony of bats – erratic and nonsensical.
As time went on, this expression eventually lost its popularity by the end of the 1910s. However, it was not completely forgotten. A popular novel was published in 1937, with the title “Bats in the Belfry”, written by E.C.R. Lorac, and in 1942, a movie based on the expression was also given the same title. The colloquialism was even adapted as a cartoon by M.G.M.
This movie was followed up by another movie bearing the same title in 1960, showcasing once again the power of this phrase. In 1996, the band Dispatch also chose to name one of their songs “Bats in The Belfry”, emphasizing the enduring power of this proverbial expression throughout the years.